70.

MATHISON SNATCHES THE PRIZE

Schriever did not favor abandonment but, after the failure of Discoverer XII on June 29, 1960, he decided a new Air Force team was needed to take a fresh look and was about to clean house. He warned Mathison he would soon be relieved. Mathison replied that if Schriever gave them one more chance, “I’d put it [a recovered capsule] on his desk.” Mathison’s job running the satellite control center was on the periphery of the project’s organization. He had never been admitted to the inner councils of the Air Force program office or briefed by the CIA operatives on the plan to turn a public Discoverer into a secret Corona. He was shrewd and resourceful enough, without sanctioned access, to discern what was going on and to keep abreast of progress being made and problems being encountered, which is why the private reports he made to Schriever were valuable to a boss to whom he was intensely loyal. Moreover, the experience he had acquired in the missile-building trials had given him perspective to judge when enough of the bugs had been removed so that a system would probably work. Mathison was convinced Discoverer was at that point.

Willis Hawkins, Lockheed’s manager of space systems, had recently eliminated one of the most persistent bugs—the ejection of the capsule. To send the capsule straight down into the atmosphere, and not have it drift off into space on an orbit of its own, it had to be spun like a top as it emerged from the Agena. Then, after entering the atmosphere, the capsule had to be “despun,” stopped from spinning, so that it would not tangle up the lines of the parachute released at that moment by small explosive charges. Finding the right type of miniature rockets and attaching them to the capsule to perform this spinning and despinning ballet had proved maddeningly difficult, but Hawkins had at last accomplished the task.

When Discoverer XIII lifted off from a pad at Vandenberg on August 10, 1960, Mathison waited through three circuits of the earth to be certain the Agena was in a correct orbit and then flew straight to Hickam. The capsule ejected perfectly on the seventeenth orbit and came down exactly where predicted, over the Pacific Ocean 380 miles northwest of Hawaii. The C-119 from Hickam missed catching the parachute in midair because of confused communication with an RC-121 control plane and obscuring cloud cover. The capsule was fortunately sealed and buoyant and so bobbed in the waves, easily visible because of its trailing parachute. (There was no precious film to be lost. The flight had been designed to see if the ejection system jinx had at last been dispelled. The capsule held only instruments and an American flag.) A Navy recovery ship, the USS Haiti Victory, equipped with a helicopter, had also been stationed in the vicinity. It took a few hours, but the pilot of the C-119 guided the ship to the spot. The helicopter crew plucked the capsule from the water and delivered it safely to the Haiti Victory’s deck.

On the morning of Friday, August 12, Lieutenant Colonel Gus Ahola, the commander of the Hickam squadron, expected to meet the Haiti Victory at Pearl Harbor to accept delivery of the capsule. He learned to his surprise that Mathison had already helicoptered to the ship and taken charge. There was nothing Ahola could do to stop him because Mathison, a full colonel by this time, outranked him. To indicate that he would brook no attempt by the Navy to reap glory by hanging on to the space trophy, Mathison, who had a fondness for the dramatic gesture, arrived on the ship with a Colt .45 service pistol strapped to his hip. The ship’s captain offered no resistance and Mathison was soon back in the helicopter, capsule secured, headed for Pearl Harbor. He had arranged by radio for General Emmett “Rosie” O’Donnell, Jr., the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, to meet him there for a photo opportunity with the capsule that was certain to generate headlines, as the photos would be distributed nationally and internationally by the wire services. (“Satellite Is Recovered off Isles in Perfect Condition,” the headline in one Hawaii newspaper read.)

The publicity parade set in motion, Mathison shifted himself and the capsule to a C-130 for the long flight back to Sunnyvale, where he picked up Ritland and Lieutenant Colonel Clarence “Lee” Battle, Jr., an engineer with an indefatigable temperament whom Schriever had chosen as program director, and then flew on to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. It was raining when they arrived on Saturday, but Schriever and General White, the chief of staff, were waiting to greet them. Both men were ecstatic at the success of the mission. One of the photographs shows the two generals beaming as Mathison held up the lines of the parachute still attached to the capsule and explained how the parachute was released by explosive charges after reentry. The capsule resembled a big kettle of shiny copper or brass, rounded at the bottom and flat on top where the cover was attached. That night and Sunday night as well, the capsule sat, as Mathison had promised, in a protective container in front of Schriever’s desk in his new office at Andrews. (In April 1959 Schriever had received the third star of a lieutenant general and promotion to command of the Air Research and Development Command. Its headquarters had shifted to Andrews from Baltimore. Ritland had replaced him as commander of the Ballistic Missile Division in Los Angeles, while simultaneously serving as Bissell’s deputy for Discoverer-Corona. His promotion did not relieve Schriever of any responsibility for Minuteman or any of the other missile programs or for the Air Force role in the photoreconnaissance satellite project. It merely widened and deepened that responsibility and he kept as close a watch as ever over it all.)

On Monday, August 16, they all went to the White House. Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy, the new secretary of the Air Force, Dudley Sharp, and LeMay, at the time still vice chief of staff, joined the group as General White removed from the capsule the Stars and Stripes that had circled the earth seventeen times and presented it to Eisenhower. Afterward, a clearly delighted president invited Schriever and Mathison, who had exchanged his gray pilot’s coveralls for neat summer tan jacket and trousers, to join him for coffee in a small inner sanctum off the Oval Office. The meeting lasted fifteen minutes, a generous visit in a president’s busy day. Schriever sat quietly while Eisenhower questioned Mathison closely about the details of the project. Then Schriever and Mathison were off to Capitol Hill to garner political support by displaying the capsule to such powerful men as Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, and Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader. The capsule never went back to California. It toured the United States under Air Force sponsorship and years later came to rest in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. McCartney and the other young controllers named the capsule Lucky XIII.

None of this was supposed to happen. The CIA had worked out a cloak-and-dagger plan for surreptitious delivery of film-filled capsules to Eastman Kodak’s photographic-processing facility at Rochester, New York. Although Discoverer XIII’s capsule contained no film, its retrieval was going to be a dress rehearsal of the CIA scheme. At Hickam, Ahola was supposed to turn the capsule, in its protective container, over to an Air Force courier from BMD in Los Angeles. On the courier’s arrival in California, probably by commercial air, a switch would be made. The container, emptied of the capsule, would go by some fairly obvious route to Lockheed, while the capsule, disguised by repackaging, would be sent east in an unmarked truck to Rochester. Then the bull moose had charged and scattered the plan.

The secret official history accused Mathison of possessing a “unique mix of creative anarchy and casual effrontery.” Had Mathison known these qualities would be attributed to him, he would have been flattered. What Mathison had done was precisely what Schriever had wanted him to do, otherwise Schriever would have stopped him. Like Jacobson and several others, Mathison was a member of a small band of officers, spoken of within the Air Force, and not always in a friendly tone, as “Bennie’s colonels.” They were bold and clever men of initiative, who believed fervently in what “the Boss” was seeking to achieve, and were entrusted with tasks Schriever would not have delegated to anyone else. The venerable Air Matériel Command at Wright-Patterson was soon to be broken up into two functionial organizations. One, to be called the Air Force Systems Command, was to be an enlarged ARDC, responsible for research, development, and initial production of all the Air Force’s aircraft, missiles, and other weaponry. (The other organization, a new Air Force Logistics Command, was to be concerned solely with supply.) Schriever was slated to head the Systems Command, a post he hoped to use to gain responsibility for all space satellites—a function, he believed, that belonged naturally with the Air Force. The struggle to get the ICBM program moving by briefing Eisenhower in 1955, and the lift provided by public relations coups like the Time cover story in 1957, had taught him how important political backing and enthusiastic publicity were to an undertaking. This was what Mathison’s actions had been all about. In showing off the Discoverer XIII capsule, Schriever and Mathison stuck to the biomedical cover story, because they had to, but it is doubtful that this fiction fooled the Soviets or any other interested parties. The aviation industry press in the United States had been speculating that the Air Force was in the process of creating a photoreconnaissance system from space. Why else put up a satellite with an ejectable capsule except to fill it with film from a camera?

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